Last December, Bernie Sanders, a liberal Senator from Vermont, led every single Senate Democrat to impose an endowment tax of around $1 million per year on Berea College.
This was a particularly outrageous act of partisan hypocrisy from a Senator who claims to want free college for all. But when it came to this particular college – which already provides tuition-free education for students whose families make, on average, less than $30,000 per year – Democrats turned their backs for partisan reasons. They used a procedural tactic to eliminate a provision I’d championed in the historic tax reform bill that would have protected schools like Berea from a tax that was never intended to affect them.
They didn’t have to employ this procedural move or hurt Berea and its students. Senate Democrats voted to deliberately make it more difficult for Berea and other schools like it to provide tuition free-education to students who, in many cases, couldn’t otherwise afford to go to college.
I believe strongly in Berea’s mission and was determined to fight for the school and its students. That’s why, after Senate Democrats removed Berea’s protection, I made a promise to help the students and the school.
The Bipartisan Budget Act that Congress passed and President Trump signed on Friday included my measure to protect the college’s ability to continue offering scholarships to its more than 1,600 students, many from Kentucky. I am proud to have worked with my colleagues, especially Congressman Andy Barr, to fulfill my commitment to these students.
Many of Berea’s students come from families in the Appalachian region who, in many cases, would not otherwise be able to afford a college education. The school, founded as a Christian college in 1855 by abolitionists, has grown its endowment from generous donors who support the school’s mission. That’s why Berea offers every student a tuition-free education, giving many young people their best opportunity to earn a degree. Because of Berea’s model, which consists of scholarships paired with wages earned through various student jobs both on campus and in the community, the vast majority of Berea’s students graduate debt free.
Senator Sanders and every Democrat in the Senate voted to tax Berea—a work college—like Harvard University, a school whose endowment is almost 30 times larger and doesn’t pursue a tuition-free mission. That’s fundamentally wrong because Berea is a school unlike almost every other college and university in the nation. Each year, Berea uses the returns on its endowment almost solely for scholarships for low-income students.
Even before the endowment tax was passed into law, the school’s president told lawmakers how he would have to respond. Berea would be forced to offer scholarships to fewer students, potentially denying many of these young people a tuition-free college education. I was determined to make sure that these students – many from the poorest parts of Kentucky – wouldn’t see the door of opportunity slammed in their faces. I was proud to reiterate my commitment to President Roelofs to reverse this unnecessary and unfair tax on Berea when he visited my office in the Capitol last week.
This tax was designed to encourage schools to spend more of their endowments on helping students afford their degrees. That’s a mission that Berea already personifies. Levying this tax on a school like Berea was nonsensical, and my provision will deliver relief.
Among its many other important benefits to Kentucky, the Bipartisan Budget Act will allow Berea to continue its important work. I am grateful that we were able to come together to undo Senator Sanders’ partisan efforts to impose a new tax on schools like Berea College.
Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, is U.S. Senate Majority Leader